Robots find many friends in South Seattle students

By Rebecca W. Lee
Northwest Asian Weekly

Second Team Xbot #488’s 2011 robot (Photo by Madison Krass)

Those passing by the Qwest exhibition center on March 18 or 19 may wonder why there are so many students in colorful t-shirts, excited to be awake at 8 a.m. These are students who spent six weeks designing and manufacturing a five-foot, 120-pound robot. These robots are used to compete against other robots from around the Pacific Northwest.

In 1989, Dean Kamen founded FIRST (for inspiration and recognition of science and technology) to inspire students to learn about science, technology, and engineering. Kamen and his committee create games for students.

How it began

Each year, on the first Saturday in January, thousands of high school students and mentors worldwide log onto to find out what the new game is. This year, the game is called logomotion, where robots put as many tubes on a rack as possible in the span of two minutes.

One of FIRST’s local teams is Team Xbot. The team formed in 2000 and experienced a few shaky years. It was almost disbanded in 2003 because it didn’t have a faculty adviser.

That was when Donna Lew, current executive director of Team Xbot, stepped up. She had heard about the team through her son, Ryan Lew, a 2004 graduate of Franklin High School.

“I asked my mom to take on Team Xbot because I knew my mom had project management experience,” said Lew. “So I figured she would be a good fit.” He has been on the team since 2002 and still mentors.

Chris O’Dowd helps Frankly students (from left) Aser, Kyle, and Gizelle on the robot. (Photo provided by Kate Thibodeau)

The team has grown from five students in 2002 to more than 30 students. “We, as a team, have really taken the message of FIRST [to heart] by getting students, who may not have a chance to get involved with this program, involved,” said Ryan Lew. “In these competitions, you primarily see white males, but our team has made a commitment to grab minority students from inner-city schools.”

Team Xbot recruits a majority of its students from Franklin High School, for which the student body is 56 percent Asian, 31 percent Black, and 13 percent white, Latino, and American Indian. Team Xbot is 77.4 percent Asian and 22.6 percent white and Black.

Diversity of the team

“The most amazing thing about being on such a diverse team is learning about different cultures — that has been the biggest thing for me, since most people aren’t exposed to that,” said Amit Bhardwaj, a student mentor for Xbot. “Other teams say they are diverse, but they might only have, like, two people of color.”

Mentors have admitted that many high school students on Xbot come from hard backgrounds, but each has a strong ambition to learn.

“When I volunteered at a local middle school, the programs were actually in the schools in the middle of the day,” said Jack Tao, a mentor and director of information and technology on Team Xbot. “All the students were there already, and because it was a school setting, the students didn’t [feel a strong] obligation [to the voluntary programs]. The students that I work with here are more motivated because they had to give up a lot to be here, like their evenings and their Saturdays.”

Many Xbot students come from immigrant families for whom education is not a priority. Getting a job to provide for the family tends to come first.

Donna Lew had one particular student, Minh, who was extremely shy and reserved. When the other mentors asked her what she wanted to do after high school, she responded with, “get a job.” Her mentors convinced her to enroll at Central Community College. Now, Minh is attending Seattle University.

“We have more students applying to the University of Washington than community colleges, because there is financial aid and scholarships offered for being involved with FIRST,” said Lew.

According to The Seattle Times school guide, the graduation rate from Franklin High School is about 69 percent. On the Xbot team, the graduation rate is 99 percent.

Seeing new futures

“What people see is that we teach these kids pneumatics and electronics,” said Kate Thibodeau, director of operations and finance for Xbot. “It’s true, but the longer we have the students, the more opportunities they have to grow as individuals, not just [as] engineers or scientists.” Thibodeau referred to Kyle Lee, a Franklin junior. When he joined the team, he sat in the back.

“Now, I am the co-captain of the team, and I am more involved with different aspects of the team such as building and animation,” said Lee. “It’s [my] aspiration to attend MIT, and being involved with FIRST has helped me realize this.”

Zile Li, now a junior at the University of Washington, was in the same position as Lee when he first joined.

“Career wise, I wanted to be a public accountant because I’m good with numbers,” said Li. “I didn’t expect working on the robot to be so hands on. I enjoyed working with tools [and] I never had the chance before. Now, I attend the University of Washington, and I am an electrical engineering major. If it wasn’t for Team Xbot, I wouldn’t have realized my interest in this field.”

For others, being on Xbot reaffirmed their future goals. “I wanted to be a lung oncologist before and have found that my dedication for it has increased dramatically after joining Team Xbot,” said Vy Tralala, a junior at Franklin. “Xbot has fostered my passion for helping society advance further with technological improvements with all the morals and hands-on experience it offered. … I have set my eyes on improving the industrial equipment used to treat cancer.”

Budget needs

With a budget that requires more than $50,000, which includes travel expenses and robot parts, Team Xbot hopes to increase the number of sponsors to provide low-income students an opportunity to be on the team.

“I am actually one of the 80 percent of people with free and reduced lunch from Franklin High School [on the team],” said Justine Sims. “Coming on the team, getting this opportunity with someone donating and giving me a scholarship to actually participate and use the tools is becoming a big part of my life.”

Some students raise funds. Others are involved with writing grants and getting sponsorships. The team is also involved with different fairs around Seattle.


This team has been Washington state’s FIRST Robotic champions for the past two years. Not only are they the 2009/2010 Microsoft/Seattle Regional Champions, but during the past two years, they won the Engineering Inspiration Award, The Oregon State Regional Gracious Professionalism award, among many others.

As for new goals, the team hopes to open a nonprofit center. They are currently considering the International District’s old immigration center. ♦

Rebecca W. Lee can be reached at

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